On Christmas evening, “Last Christmas,” the inescapable 1984 holiday mainstay from Wham! came on the Christmas music station at my parents’ house. As the song played, the news came in that George Michael had died.
It was the same horrifying situation for many of us.
Just settling down for dinner on the East Coast, lazing in a post-brunch stupor on the West Coast, or sipping night caps in Michael’s London, and Michael’s voice soundtracking the holiday—and the news of his death.
It was a morbid way to learn of the British pop star and gay icon’s death. Then again, maybe it was poetic, even beautiful.
As BBC News reported and Michael’s publicist confirmed, George Michael died Christmas Day at age 53.
His four-decade recording career began with pop duo Wham! in the 1980s, before Michael broke out on his own as a solo artist, and found his image synonymous with sexual controversy.
He then famously appropriated scandal into a much-needed conversation about sex, shame, and sexual orientation; became a trailblazer in the art of the self-aware embrace of reputation; and funneled it all into lasting status as a legend, activist, and voice for the gay community and, especially, camp.
He also wrote a Christmas song that is beloved, reviled, hugely successful, and, now, more tragic than ever.
When Michael wrote “Last Christmas” for Wham! in 1984, the duo was making a play for the coveted Christmas number one in the U.K.—the badge of honor so hilariously lampooned by Bill Nighy’s character in Love Actually—but came up just short, finishing number two to the Band Aid charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” It was a big year for cheesy British holiday pop.
Still, the song became a chart success across the world both that year and nearly every one since. According to Billboard and Nielsen SoundScan, it is the 10th most downloaded holiday song in history.
That doesn’t even include all the cover versions of the song. Lately, remakes by Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and the cast of Glee have found their way onto the radio and Duane Reade seasonal playlists. Jimmy Eat World, Ashley Tisdale, and Hillary Duff also have versions you may have had the (mis)fortune to hear.
The last line on the track’s Wikipedia on this Christmas Day is its most harrowing: “Avril Lavigne recorded a cover of the song on November 21, 2016.”
Its lilting chorus, monotonous rhythmic synth, and, at surface, romantic themes have turned into one of the most addicting Yuletide earworms in the canon, second probably only to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”
It’s slightly grating, like every good “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Blue Christmas,” or “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” should be—in that any solid pop track has a little bit of irritating tin to it, and that’s weirdly what lodges it in our heads. But that’s also cut by the masculine, almost lazy crooning by Michael on the track.
Still, as popular and downloaded it is—there’s a reason all these artists cover it—it’s certainly not universally cherished. In fact, it might be the most divisive Christmas classic there is.
To know why, first you must know the chorus. Which of course you know, if you have ears and have gone out into public ever during a holiday season over the last 30 years.
“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart,” the chorus beings. “But the very next day, you gave it away / This year, to save me from tears / I’ll give it to someone special.”
Breakup, heartbreak, and wistful regret. Not exactly the fa la la la la of Christmas cheer.
That’s partly why people love it, because it’s a holiday song with an emotional beating heart, one that acknowledges the sadness that can exist over the holidays, and actually tells a story. The Atlantic praised the “glorious bitterness” of it while ruling it the Ultimate Secular Holiday Song.
Beyond the tragedy of a painful breakup that happened over the holidays, Christmas is one of “few yearly rituals that the bulk of Western society still partakes in,” writer Spencer Kornhaber says. “Which means most everyone has a memory of their Last Christmas, and everyone has aspirations for This Year (when we take measures, in vain, to be Saved From Tears). Wham! is tapping into the holiday’s unique ability to make people take stock and look ahead.”
By contrast, The Awl branded the Wham! track “The Most Horrible Holiday Song Ever Made.” It’s “a wallowing mess of a song. It mistakes self-indulgence for closure,” Tom Keiser writes. “It contains a synthy falseness that would make even Paul McCartney and Wings wince.”
There is endless internet bemoaning over the sheer number of cloying, barely listenable covers of the song. At one point a Facebook group existed titled, “Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ IS NOT A CHRISTMAS SONG!” attempting to end the long international nightmare of its holiday omnipresence once and for all.
The confounding popularity of the song even, at one time, spawned a research-intensive, now-defunct website, Last-Christmas.com, that attempted to chronicle every single “Last Christmas” cover.
Site co-creator Alex Liebold marveled over the song’s “unobtrusiveness,” saying that when he talked to people about it “there seemed to be a complete lack of understanding as to why the song had so many iterations. Few would claim it as their favorite song, and few would say they hated it. It just happens to be on everyone’s holiday mix, whether they like reggae or trance or explicit squirrels. In a more academic sense, perhaps its popularity comes from its unobtrusiveness: It is obviously related to Christmastime, but only superficially; it is both hopeful and spiteful; it’s musically interesting but not difficult to perform.”
In other words, whether you fell into the camp of expressing your love for it or your loathing of it, and whether you felt its emotionally resonance or scoffed at its sappiness, the song is slyly—and, for listeners, subconsciously—the perfect Christmas song.
It’s unafraid to address the melancholy feeling of even the most joyous holidays. Lost lovers, loved ones, and memories haunt even the happiest of Christmases. On a day that is marked by forced giving and, in turn, forced gratitude, that impresses enjoyment on each tenet of a family’s tradition, and that foists “JOY” as the tagline for the day, those emotional ghosts tend to come into great focus.
Whether it’s just for a moment or it’s so strong the holiday is excruciating to weather, it’s a feeling that bubbles underneath so much of our holiday experience. So it’s appropriate for “Last Christmas” to reliably soundtrack the season.
Sure, by this point, we might be mindlessly singing along to Michael’s voice like Christmas drones when the song comes on multiple times a day during the season—just like we were this Christmas evening when it came on just as we read the news of Michael’s death.
But the beauty and the reason the song lasts is that the emotional pangs of those lyrics are felt every so often. But never more than today.
There’s a certain cheesiness, maybe even a little bit of superficiality in the way we will inextricably tie the song and its lyrics to the death of the pop star going forward. But that’s what we do. “I Will Always Love You” is a tribute to a singing supernova now as much as it ever was a blockbuster radio ballad. “Purple Rain” is a spiritual hymn.
And “Last Christmas” will now take on the bitterness, melancholy, and angry pain that the lyrics describe in a whole new way. We’re upset that the world took George Michael, and on Christmas Day, no less. But we will remember him each year, over and over (and over and over) when the song plays, and we will remember the sadness.
That’s why the song lasts, too. Even with the heartbreak and the regret and the pain, we want to have these memories. We want them to last.
The song is, by all accounts, the unlikeliest of megahits. Michael, too, was an unlikely megastar.
But the undeniable authenticity that screamed out of him from the days snap-dancing in short-shorts in Wham! to the outspoken and essential activism made him a constant in our lives. Some people didn’t like him, or want him to be as omnipresent as he’s been his entire career. Others lived for it. His holiday song is, in a way, both a parallel and tribute to that.
It’s reductive to compare a man’s complicated life to the popularity of his Christmas song. But as our hearts break this Christmas, it’s a parallel we’re finding solace in. And, while we listen to it again and again tonight, we’ll return to the sadness of Christmases past because our hearts are shattered this Christmas. He’s our someone special we’re singing about.
And he will be next year, too.